Beyoncé performs at the VMAs. Photo: Michael Buckner/Getty Images
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Beyoncé’s VMA performance was feminism’s most powerful pop culture moment

More and more high-profile women are embracing the language, ideas, and symbolism of feminism, and that they’re doing it from their places within the power structure, not just from outside of it.

I’m old-ish, and it’s been a while since I’ve watched the Video Music Awards. I’m not saying that the last time I tuned in to the full broadcast was to watch Madonna hump the stage in a synthetic wedding dress, but it might have been within a decade of that.

On Monday morning I woke to images of Beyoncé, striking a dramatic pose – dressed as the world’s most beautiful disco ball – in front of the word “FEMINIST” and felt like an excited kid all over again. Or rather, an excited kid in a far more thrilling pop culture universe than the one I was an actual kid in.

The singer, who will be 33 next week, was performing at the end of the annual awards ceremony, just before receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award. She sang a 16-minute medley, and ten minutes in, the words from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” – which Beyoncé sampled in her 2013 song “Flawless” – began to pop up on the screen while Adichie’s voice said them aloud. 

“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are,” said/read Adichie. “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you will threaten the man’.” It culminated with Adichie’s definition of feminist – “The person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” – and the shimmering figure of Beyoncé sliding straight out in front of the word, all lit up.

It was a thing of slick, exhilarating beauty. A thing that was, yes, so trivial and packaged that it really should, I realise, be truly meaningless in this summer of real-world, non-staged, non-shimmery police brutality and restricted rights and horrifying incivility. And yet, despite its superfluity, there it was, the most powerful, and certainly the most highly polished pop-culture message of my lifetime: that attention to gender inequity is alive, revived, and that it is powered today by a broader, more diverse, more youthful and far glossier energy than it has been in the past four decades. 

And no, that doesn’t mean that Beyoncé Knowles is the single face of feminism, or that she stands in any more sufficiently than any of feminism’s other flawed messengers, past or present. But she’s sending a signal, and the fact that that signal is coming from inside the house, the entertainment industry – hell, the fact that Beyoncé herself is arguably the most powerful person in that house – means something that we should all be paying attention to.

These days, as online feminism swells and roils with internal disagreements, it’s easy to forget that not too long ago, there was no online feminism. We forget that not too long ago, a few major women’s organisations were toying with the idea of abandoning the word “feminism”, not because of its complicated history with regard to inclusion and women of colour, but because it turned off too many young women. Not too long ago, the Daily Beast was releasing polling proclaiming feminist “a dirty word”. 

Sunday night, Beyoncé put the word in lights and did not simply use her own voice and body to define it, but turned to another woman’s work as her source. This is a big deal. Having just reread Backlash – the book that brilliantly captured the dismally antifeminist political and pop cultural environment in which I was a young person – I couldn’t help but think that the book’s author, Susan Faludi, must be plotzing. Though she’s always struck me as sort of Eeyoreish, so maybe she, like other critics – both on the left and the right – are underwhelmed by Beyoncé’s feminist credentials: the fact that she presents herself, or allows herself to be presented, in a terrifically feminised, sexualised way; that her career is inherently capitalist in nature; that “Drunk in Love,” performed with her husband Jay-Z, includes the troubling lyric, “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” a reference to Ike Turner’s abuse of Tina Turner, one of Beyoncé’s most formidable forerunners.

To this kind of discussion, I say: yes, by all means, argue about sex positivity and objectification and the presentation of female erotic power! Pay attention to the way that those on the right work to dismantle women’s claim to power bit by bit, and to those progressives who validly question the inconsistencies and complicated contexts from which Beyoncé’s messages emerge, just as we should question the inconsistencies and complicated contexts from which other contemporary popular feminist voices, from Lena Dunham’s to Sheryl Sandberg’s to Tina Fey’s, have emerged. Bey’s Sunday night performance took place at an event that last year spat up Robin Thicke spanking a twerking Miley Cyrus; even Adichie’s smart and succinct definition of feminism came from a TED Talk: a TED Talk. In feminism and liberalism, the wry lesson of Some Like It Hot pertains: nobody’s perfect. No individual can competently represent all the people who look to her (or him) to see their own experiences or perspectives reflected. And that’s fine, and fine to point out. 

But in the analysis, let’s not wholly lose what remains exciting: the fact that more high-profile women are embracing the language, ideas, and symbolism of feminism, and that they’re doing it from their places within the power structure, not just from outside of it. It’s that unusual positioning that makes them problematic, of course – how can multi-millionaire businesswoman and performers adequately give voice to the inequities faced by women around the world? But it is also symptomatic of something unprecedented, the still-too-few but ever-more-numerous women climbing high within structures that have always been just for boys, and refusing to part with the outside identities that would have barred them from those structures just decades earlier.

On MTV’s news site, the post-VMA headline was “Beyoncé’s 2014 VMA Performance: Fearless, Feminist, Flawless, Family Time”. In my day, those words would never, ever have been strung together. 

So yeah, it’s manufactured stage-craft and she’s rich and they’re corporate, but in a business in which performance is the business, this one was broadcast to twelve million adoring fans. And it showed a woman of colour as a sexually confident, high-octane talent and as a powerful business woman, as an adoring mother and an equal partner (“don’t think I’m just his little wife”) to a man who called her “the greatest living entertainer” as he was handing her her little spaceman statuette and carrying their kid. 

That this is what a woman looks like when she defines herself as a feminist in 2014 tells us that its steadily-published obituaries to the contrary, the women’s movement is not only thriving, but expanding. Bow down. 

This article first appeared on

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End of an orator: the ancient Roman machinations of Robert Harris's Dictator

Dictator, the final installment in the "Cicero trilogy", finds the great lawyer exiled from Rome.

If ever a Roman was lucky enough to win a great military victory without losing too many of his men, he could return to the city in triumph. He would be paraded through the streets alongside placards proclaiming his successes, trophies and spoils, prisoners and horses. Cicero, who was never one for frivolous excess, triumphed in a different way. It was just a pity that his kind of triumph was also his undoing.

At the beginning of Dictator, the much-anticipated final instalment in Robert Harris’s “Cicero trilogy”, the great orator and lawyer has been exiled from Rome. What Cicero considered to be his great triumph – the quelling of a conspiracy to overthrow the Republic in 63BC – was all his enemies had needed to get him out the way. Illegally, he had put the conspirators to death without trial. A protracted absence from Rome was just the first way in which he would pay for acting so precipitously.

We see him through the eyes of Tiro, his trusty secretary, who is a delightfully subjective biographer of his master’s last 15 years. Tiro has had plenty of time to discover that, for all his kind-heartedness, Cicero can be incredibly tiresome. So when Cicero threatens to kill himself rather than endure the ignominy of his new life in exile, Tiro stands aside, as if to let him get on with it. “He couldn’t stand the sight of others’ blood,” he says, “let alone his own.”

Self-pitying and incredulous how a man of his intellect could fall from such a high status so quickly, Cicero grows his beard and awaits news from Rome, where the ruthless demagogue Publius Clodius destroys his house on the luxurious Palatine Hill, replaces it with a temple to Liberty and generally dispenses with all justice.

All of which makes this novel just as thrilling but altogether more sorrowful than the first two books. Grim inevitability lurks in the background of every page, as all that Cicero loves most about the Roman Republic goes to pot. When he returns to the city the situation grows still worse: the “triumvirate” alliance uniting Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus begins to crack and the politicians hurtle into civil war, which dominates the second, busier half of the novel.

The events and political upheavals of these years are some of the most complicated in ancient history. Undaunted, Harris remains impressively faithful to the ancient sources, embellishing the gaps with terse dialogue, exhilarating exchanges and witty observations of some of the lesser-known senators.

Tiro is an indispensable guide, proving himself a more objective historian than he is a biographer of his master. Indeed, there are times when he is just as conscientious about describing the significance of events as a modern-day historian would be: “Even allowing for a degree of exaggeration, it was plain from the Commentaries that Caesar had enjoyed an astonishing run of military successes.” Not that this does anything to distract, as Harris skilfully navigates these fraught years in Cicero’s life. His novel often feels like the best kind of narrative history, at once frenetic but measured in its assessment of the characters who brought the Republic to an end.

Although it is true that Cicero is one of the most documented figures of antiquity, capable of providing a fair self-portrait through his own letters, it can be hard to differentiate between how he saw himself and how he was seen. This is where Dictator triumphs. Although it is hard to blame him, given the crises that unfurl between Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, Cicero becomes a caricature, ever certain of his own greatness, ignorant of how unhinged he must look to everyone around him. And yet, it is impossible not to warm to him, especially as the darkest days draw near. He was, historically no less than in this novel, a loving father, a defiant believer in a cause, an excellent writer and public speaker, and an intellectual.

Harris’s trilogy leaves one pondering: was Cicero born at the wrong time, or precisely the right time? Without setting himself up to challenge the inevitable return to one-male rule in Rome, he would never have found the fame and legacy he so yearned for, but nor would he have suffered the painful demise that Harris charts so spectacularly. Catapult him back two centuries earlier into the Republic, and his life would have been far more pleasant – pleasant enough for us never to have heard a thing about it.

Daisy Dunn’s “Catullus’ Bedspread: the Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet” will be published next year by William Collins

Dictator by Robert Harris is out now from Hutchinson (£20, 464pp)

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror